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BUDGET 2015

Construction sector seeks manpower policy tweaks

More effort needed to retain trained workers at company and national level

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SCAL president Ho Nyok Yong admits that construction firms are now "a bit more calculative" as they struggle to manage a heavier volume of projects with fewer workers.

Singapore

HARD pressed between having to cope with a limited foreign workforce and boosting productivity, the construction industry is asking the government to tweak some policies to help companies manage their manpower costs.

Top on the list is a request to allow construction firms to plough back the foreign worker levies paid to the government into full subsidies for workers' training and upgrading. Companies should also be able to use the money to reward long-service workers with gratuities, said the Singapore Contractors Association Ltd (SCAL)

Explaining the rationale, SCAL president Ho Nyok Yong said that this not only helps to raise the industry's productivity, but also encourages employers to "spare" their workers to go for training, despite the labour crunch. Even though training costs are now partially subsidised, they still add to business costs.

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The gratuities will also help to retain workers at the company and national levels, he added. In fact, he is also asking the government to extend the maximum period of employment for higher skilled workers from 22 to 28 years, and that for basic skilled workers from 10 to 18 years.

"Otherwise, workers that we have trained in Singapore may leave after a few years for other countries, and the training we have invested in them goes with them," Dr Ho said.

"Retaining the experienced workers will also save us precious time having to train new workers from scratch. It also saves us the hassle of having new batches of workers acclimatise all over again to Singapore's laws, culture, weather, et cetera. You lose productivity that way," he said.

The period of employment for higher skilled work permit holders in the construction sector was already extended from 18 years to 22 years in Budget 2014.

A final round of levy hikes is due to hit employers this July. For the construction sector, while levies for skilled workers will stay put at S$300 monthly, those for unskilled workers will go up from S$550 to S$600 a month.

For those employed outside of a company's allocated man-year entitlements, levies for skilled workers will go up from S$700 to S$750, while those for unskilled workers will increase from S$950 to S$1,050 a month.

Seen in this light, it is no wonder that SCAL is also asking for safety personnel to be recognised as skilled workers - the category for which levies are unaffected.

The association is also asking the government to return any unused or balance man-year entitlements (of at least three months) to the employer, so that the company can hire a replacement worker or extend the employment of an existing worker.

One man-year is equivalent to one year of employment for a worker, but sometimes workers quit after a few months, and the company is unable to hire someone else or extend an existing employee's work permit.

Dr Ho admitted that construction firms are now "a bit more calculative" as they struggle to manage a heavier volume of projects with fewer workers.

OKH Holdings managing director Thomas Bon agreed that the proposal would help contractors if implemented. "When we have to let go of one worker, it's already a loss of productivity. With the man-year entitlements reducing, every man counts. Every one worker is very important for us," he said.

Besides this, SCAL also hopes to set up a construction hub to store precast components and heavy machinery. "There are many kinds of hubs in Singapore, but not for construction," he said.

He is hoping to work with JTC, the state industrial landlord, to provide such storage-cum-office space. This will be in line with the less labour-intensive and more productive prefabrication technology that the government is encouraging.

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